What’s the tipping point for Antarctica’s ice sheets?

New study suggests rapid meltdown during post-ice age warming

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How long will it take for Antarctica’s ice sheets to melt? @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

After taking a close look at rocks from West Antarctica’s dramatic Ellsworth Mountains, climate researchers say there’s a chance that ice sheets in the region could melt quickly as the planet warms, potentially causing sea level to rise by  six to eight feet.

The new study, published in Nature Communications, took a close look at Antarctic climate change about 21,000 years ago during a period of warming after the coldest point of the most recent Ice Age. They found that  the West Antarctic Ice Sheet reached a tipping point, after which it thinned relatively quickly, losing 400m of thickness in 3,000 years.

The findings are based determining how  how long rocks in the Ellsworth Mountains been free from ice cover. That helped show how the height of the ice sheet had changed over thousands of years. Parts of the ice sheet close to Weddell Sea remained covered with thick ice long after it melted away in other areas. But as the seas warmed, ice at the coast began to be lost to the oceans. Eventually, a tipping point was reached after which the ice sheet thinned more rapidly, retreating inland.

“West Antarctica has undergone complex changes since the last Ice Age, and it quickly became unstable – similar processes may dominate the future of the region in a warmer world,” said Dr Andrew Hein of the University of Edinburgh’s School of GeoSciences.

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